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James P. Carse is Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University. A winner of the University’s Great Teacher Award, he is author of The Religious Case Against Belief (2008) and Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience (1994). Carse lives in New York City and Massachusetts.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Professor Carse writes in the first chapter, "There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." From that beginning he broadly defines "game" in a way that includes, defines, and lays an analytical foundation for all relationships. The book's subtitle is "A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility," and it is a profound work, practically a unified-field theory of human relationships. For example, the book contains an interesting theory about sexuality, as being either a finite game (§§ 54-59) or an infinite game (§§ 60-62). The contrast between perceiving sexual relationships as finite or infinite is startling. On a broader (yet surprisingly even more personal) level, in his chapter titled "A Finite Game Occurs Within a World" (ch. 4), Carse explores the individual's struggle with defining, regarding, and regulating the world around oneself in a way that includes everyone around one, or just oneself alone. The first step in appreciating this book is understanding that any relationship or process can be characterized in "finite" or "infinite" terms. The second step is recognizing that that characterization is almost always a matter of choice and that, by choosing to characterize a relationship as "infinite," one can redefine it in a meaningful and healthy way. After reading this book, you may never look at the world around you, or at any relationship, or at yourself in quite the same way. This book reconfigures thinking about interpersonal reality as deeply as Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" reconfigured thinking about the scientific method.
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The subtitle of this book is "A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility." This puts quite succinctly what this project is all about. Carse creates a number of distinctions through which he interprets life: finite and infinite games, society and culture, gardens and machines. Throughout, he comes again and again to reminders of choice and possibility. He reminds us that the games we play we choose to play, that we choose to assume our roles, that our society is a collective choice. He points to the ways that we mask these choices from ourselves and provides the insight we need to be aware of our self-veiling. This is what philosophy should be like. It is philosophical poetry. One of the most unique aspects of the book is that nowhere does Carse attack another view or provide a first principles defense of his own view. He provides a vision, helps us reinterpret the world, and then lets the insight it provides be its own defense. The following quote from the text reflects much on Carse's project: "Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounding way of looking to an horizonal way of seeing." (sec 78) Perhaps Carse cannot succeed in his project, but certainly his vision is compelling. Robert Pirsig is quoted on the back cover: "Normally we add new facts to existing knowledge.Read more ›
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In a way, this book fulfills Wittgenstein's prediction that the philosophy of the future will be written as a poetic composition. Whether that's good or bad for philosophy, well... I wouldn't call "Finite and Infinite Games" a 'willful complication of thought,' as one reviewer put it; if it is, it is only in the sense that new ways of looking at the world seem complicated at first. That said, Carse's enthusiasm for his concept of finite and infinite games tends to get the better of him, inasmuch as he is often too quick to file phenomena into either the 'finite' category or the 'infinite' category, when a more subtle approach would be appropriate. But, as I said, this is more poetry than science. Which is not to say that Carse's book is useless, or 'metaphysical': in fact, I found it to be one of the more profound books I've ever read, if only for the many startling thoughts contained in it. Carse's treatments of sexuality, the unspeakability of nature, indeed, the whole idea of an infinite activity, all resonated with me, if not for their truth, then for the possibility of their truth. Possibility, in fact, is a major theme of this book: as Carse puts it: "Who must play cannot play." Which means, you have a lot more freedom than you think, if you are aware of the customary nature of human activities and how their boundaries can be played with. One doesn't have infinite power; indeed, infinite players, according to Carse, do not seek power as an end but only as a means to continuing play. How much truth there is in such a claim I leave to the reader, where it is sure to be much more lively. In short, read this book, be captivated by it, but don't expect any final answers.